Mauritania has passed a law promising jail time for slaveholders, an important step in the northwest African country's push to eliminate...

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NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — Mauritania has passed a law promising jail time for slaveholders, an important step in the northwest African country’s push to eliminate a practice that has quietly persisted despite a 25-year-old ban.

The law, adopted unanimously late Wednesday by the legislature, calls for prison sentences of up to 10 years for people found keeping slaves, along with fines for slaveholders and reparations for those who have been enslaved.

Human-rights campaigners praised the law as a signal that a long-awaited cultural shift might finally be taking hold in Mauritania, where slavery has existed for hundreds of years and is ensconced in traditional proverbs, songs and poems. The new law prohibits many of these as pro-slavery propaganda.

The government officially abolished slavery in 1981, but no one has ever been prosecuted for the crime of slavery and no law previously set forth a punishment.

“It’s a historic moment for Mauritania,” said Boubacar Ould Messaoud, president of the anti-slavery activist group SOS Slavery. “We are very happy; the democrats won this battle.”

Messaoud credited Mauritania’s newly elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi — its first since a military junta seized power in a 2005 coup — with supporting the law and making the eradication of slavery a priority.

A new openness about slavery has been growing in Mauritania since the coup. Junta head Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall publicly declared slavery a problem in May 2006, a sharp break from years of denials by deposed President Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya that the practice persisted at all.

A former slave even ran in March presidential elections on a vocal anti-slavery platform — finishing fourth in the first round with 10 percent of the vote. Messaoud Ould Boulkheir was elected to the legislature and currently serves as its president.

It’s difficult to know how persistent the practice of slavery is in this poor nation of Muslim nomads and traders on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

Families of owners and slaves often have lived together for decades, with both sides taking the master-servant relationship as a given. Owners and slaves commonly refer to each other as family, and slaves typically take the last names of their masters, said Asim Turkawi, co-head of the Africa program for London-based Anti-Slavery International.

While slavery once was racially based in Mauritania — Arabs taking black Africans as servants — years of intermarriage mean that those distinctions are less prevalent, he said.